What follows is the beginning of a lengthy e-mail discussion I had with a student of mine named Sean Hong-Wi Ng in the current (spring 2010) semester. I teach exclusively freshman, many of which are exceptionally talented but few who are this articulate.
A little background on how this started: I teach 2D in the Foundation Program at Parsons, which is a class largely devoted to the formal elements of art and design (it's an updated version of the old Bauhaus foundation course). During the crits we talk a great deal about how pictures look, but obviously the intersection of form and content is also addressed. Sean initiated this exchange after our second crit of the semester.
I intend to put up to whole thing, lightly edited, in segments:
There's something I'd like to add but it didn't seem appropriate in class. With regard to reading abstract art and representational elements, I've been reading Roland Barthes' The Fashion System, and it's interesting to apply a similar system of reading signs, signifiers and signified to reading art. Tianyi's piece for example, when we were trying to articulate why the colour choice was so good, a good way to look at it might have been to peel back the layers of signs we read into the colours - both formal (warm, cool, etc) and evocative (swampy, fertile, etc). While it might be reductionist, art can be read as a string of signs and it might sometimes be a useful tool or guide to initiate analysis.
Anyway, have a good day and here's hoping there's no snow this week.
Have you read any of Barthes' stuff about myth? That and "Death of the Author" are my favorites.
I have to say, though, that the semiotic reading of art, which has been a big part of the discussion since the '60's, is a thorny one for me. The general drift is to present pictures as a kind of text, as opposed to a wholly unique language, separate from text. Pictures precede and, I believe, supercede language, both written and spoken. Needless to say, the people that claim that art is a kind of text are generally writers, not artists, and a certain kind of power struggle comes into focus.
That said, I love these kind of debates - It's never possible to be wholly right or wholly wrong about art. I think it would be great if you were to introduce these ideas in a critique and let it play out in the group. It would be especially useful in a freshman crit, before people have a strong affinity for certain ideologies. This discussion will be completely new to a lot of your peers.
If you're interested in Semiotics, you should definitely read some Wittgenstein. When these ideas were finding their way into Artforum in the late '60's and early '70's he was a kind of patron saint.
You're right that it's never possible to be entirely right or wrong about art. As it happens, I probably identify with the writer group as opposed to the artists although this comes close to a discussion I have had with a number of my peers about the difference between art and design.
I'll definitely raise it when we have another crit.
One more thing, I couldn't resist. Here's a short piece I wrote about one of the earliest known examples of the urge to make art - it predates spoken language by about 100,000 years and written language by about 200,000 years:
A couple of things with regard to your piece; I'm often interested to know what teachers really think about art - there's far too much political correctness informing the pedagogy of art and design for my comfort.
1. The language and art dichotomy. While it is a valid argument that art supersedes language, given that our original impulse to decorate or to arrange our surroundings in a way that suggests a form of aesthetics seems to rank on the same level as eating or sleeping, I do think that the advent of language has changed the way we perceive art. Language informs, influences and affirms ways in which we think or perceive art or pieces of art through art criticism, art history and the naming of art. Take abstract art. You could call a red panel "Untitled", "Red Series" or "Lamentations" and it would change the way we look at it. Art criticism and art history add further layers of meaning to art that may or may not have anything to do with the original intent of the artist. Language then becomes a vital factor in the understanding and creation of art.
2. The usefulness of art. This is one of those issues that seem more symptomatic of our times than the actual issue. I find it very amusing that we seem intent on attaching some sort of utility to anything as a form of justification. I fully agree that art's uselessness, in that it lacks utility in its purest sense, might be part of its worth. We must always guard against conflating utility and worth especially with regard to art.
3. Did you look at the Bauhaus exhibition at the Moma? I'd love to know what your thoughts are on that movement.
In response to your questions:
1. This is something we talked about just a little in class, the place of language in art. I believe that artistic practice always precedes art theory (i.e. text), and that the practice of art is a primarily visual endeavor. This is a surprisingly controversial view - some of your other teachers would have a stroke if you said this out loud. You are quite correct about the way that language influences perception, though, and your point about the titles is an excellent example. The conceptual artists that emphasized language in the late '60's and early '70's recognized this , and took it to an extreme - seeing the increasing importance of theory and criticism (a process which began at the end of the 19th century), they decided that art was in fact nothing but a linguistically constructed set of ideas; art objects were little more than an illustration of those ideas. This is when semiotics became not only a way of analyzing art and popular culture (like in Barthes), but as a modus operandi for making art. This is a crucial difference - language as a way of explanation and interpretation of existing art vs. theory as a starting point for making art. I think there are big problems with the latter.
The blank, non-visual character of so much recent art, particularly in the last ten or fifteen years, is evidence that this was an interesting set of ideas, but as a sustained approach to art-making it has demonstrable limits. Here's a Roberta Smith piece from the Times that talks about the end-of-an-era feeling attached to much of what is often referred to as post-minimalism:
3. I was excited about the Bauhaus show, but when I actually went to see it I felt like I was in Ikea or Crate and Barrel. To go back to your point above, I think that art's usefulness is contemplative, and this is interrupted if not obliterated if you can also use it to make coffee or hold toilet paper.